by Eric Ormsby
I don't have a single favorite word, but if I did, the supple conjunction or would figure high on my list. Of course, since it forms the first syllable of my surname, I could be accused of partiality. But in fact, I like and admire it for a score of reasons. It's not a showy word but a worker word, a syntactic functionary; and yet, for all its organizational aplomb, it secretly delights in nuance and ambiguity. Or stands like a squat bouncer at the revolving door of the disjunction. It bears the yoke of alternatives—"to be or not to be"—with all the robust orotundity of an ox. It summons its correlatives inescapably. Kierkegaard (the final syllable of whose name conceals a drawled Danish "or") orbits at the very edge of the horizon with his Either/Or. But either (whether you pronounce it as "eether" or "eyether") has the feathery feel of an insinuation while nor—that negative alternative in mufti—muffles the particle's bright opening vowel with the snidest of nasals.
Or is various in its intonations, especially when standing alone. Who can exhaust all the shades of defiant incredulity in an emphatic "Or"? Nietzsche resorted to this trick when he ended his early work Morgenröte ("Daybreak") with the whimsical interrogative "Oder, meine Brüder? Oder?"—("Or, my brothers? Or?"). But the German oder (like the river which shares its name) carries a distinct whiff of the malodorous.
Or is splendidly homophonic. I always endeavor to load my rifts with or. And my writing hand, like Eliot's gaily responsive boat, ever strives to become "expert with sail and or." Or not only o'erflows the measure but is afterthought's most skeptical accomplice. (Or is it?)
The Oxford English Dictionary, which devotes several pages to this humble hinge of our tongue, tells us that it derives from "other." It notes that it has a temporal equivalent in ere. Or serves not only to balance alternatives on its sly pivot but to link words of identical meaning: Terre-neuve or Newfoundland. Even more, as the OED notes, it serves "the Boolean function of a variable," whatever that may mean. The dictionary doesn't tell us, though, how well or functions as the stuffing for grander words. An orb without its or is nothing but a sadly disemvowelled b. An ordeal dwindles sordidly to a deal. And what would work or fork or rhetoric—not to mention word itself—amount to but splinters of toppled consonants without that little hidden oriflamme?
It's pleasure to enunciate an or. The broad o demands a certain preparatory embouchure which alerts the lips and musters the mouth. It has, as I said before, a sturdy orotundity: it is ore rotundo (as Horace puts it), a syllable spoken "with round mouth." The vowel can expand; it muses, ponders, hovers before closing on the r, most diffident of American consonants. In a Mediterranean mouth, of course, that r positively clatters like an angry castanet when prolonged for dramatic effect: o-r-r-r-r-r! We refrain from such oratorical flourishes. Our r is the deference we pay to harsh choice; it bridles its brash o in exculpatory velvet.
The OED notes that or functions not only to demarcate alternatives but to make possible the "emphatic repetition of a rhetorical question." True to its monosyllabic modesty, this cunning particle plays the straight man to the jokester clauses it connects, but the core of the joke is in the or. Am I right or am I right?
This hard-working word has its share of false friends; sometimes, with the dimmest of echoes, it kibitzes on their glamour. In French, or means "gold." In Hebrew, it means "light."
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Eric Ormsby is the author of six collections of poetry, including For a Modest God (Grove Press). His work has appeared in journals in Britain, Canada, and the U.S., and is included in The Norton Anthology of Poetry. A new selection, The Baboons of Hada, will appear in 2011 from Carcanet. He lives in London.